Nancy Edell was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1942, and died in Halifax in 2005. She moved to Nova Scotia in 1980 and was a part-time teacher for many years at NSCAD University. She became a Canadian citizen in 1981. Edell's work has been included in numerous national and international exhibitions, including the nationally touring exhibition Art Nuns organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 1991. In 2004, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia mounted a retrospective exhibition, Nancy Edell - Selected Works: 1980 - 2004. She has numerous works in public collections, including those of the National Gallery of Canada, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Edell was a multi-talented artist who worked in the media of animation, drawing, printmaking, and painting, but it was her use of the traditional media of rug-hooking that moved her work into a new and influential direction. When Edell arrived in Nova Scotia hooked mats were an established part of the folk culture of the region, though one that had not been turned to the purposes of visual art. Of course, by 1980, when Edell first encountered hooked mats, the use of traditional domestic crafts in the so-called "high" arts, was established. Joyce Wieland, for instance, had used quilting in her work since the mid-1960s, and in Great Britain Kate Walker had used embroidery since the early 1970s. With her hooked art of the early 80s Edell joined these pioneers as someone central to the introduction of so-called "women's work" to the conversation of contemporary art.
In her 1991 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Edell introduced the theme of the "Art Nun". This theme occupied her for most of the 1990s. Art Nuns lampoons the late-modernist cult of art, the notion of art replacing religion as the source of spirituality in a secular age. The "Art Nun" is also a form of self-portraiture, as are many of the female figures in Edell's work. However, the narratives in her work do not allow for straightforward autobiography. Her self-portraits are more akin to references to personal and universal attributes. She placed versions of herself into the work, avatars rather than images, representations of aspects of her personality.
Woodcuts, monotypes and drawings would be a major focus of Edell's work for the balance of the 1990s. The ambition of the Art Nuns series continued through the work of the later 90s, culminating in her last works. The narrative is less cinematic in the later works, reflecting an over-all sensibility rather than the right-to-left reading of the earlier work. The imagery became much more dense in these later works as well, everything is floating, as if the scene is suspended in fluid rather than taking place where gravity holds sway.